The National Park Service, the federal agency that oversees America’s national parks, monuments and other conservation lands, got a new leader last month. West Virginia native Margaret Everson istaking the helm at the agency. Everson comes to the role with decades of natural resources experience.
Most recently she was principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has previously worked for Ducks Unlimited and as general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Reporter Brittany Patterson spoke with Everson about how growing up in West Virginia affected her outlook on the natural world, how the agency is balancing newfound interest in its parks during the COVID-19 pandemic and how a recently passed law could bring big changes to the park service.
***Editor’s Note: The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Brittany Patterson: I understand you’re a native of West Virginia.
Margaret Everson: I am, I am. I was born and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. I grew up out by Cheat Lake. I had wonderful memories of growing up out there.
Patterson: So, you have a long history working in conservation and natural resource issues. What drew you to those fields?
Everson: I think it really all goes back to how I grew up, the values that were identified very early on in my life. There’s this wonderful expression that a mentor of mine, former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Dale Hall, uses. He talks about this concept of “belly botany.” This idea that children learn best about the outside world by being out there and turning over stones and getting down on your belly and turning over rocks and looking for bugs. And I think that is a lot about how I grew up.
We were outside pretty much my entire childhood, as I recall, whether we were hiking in the woods, we were riding our bikes, riding horses, getting outside and exploring the natural world. We had a very large garden growing up, and so I learned a lot about growing certain foods, shelling way too many peas, those were the kinds of things I can remember as a child. And so, as I looked at what I would study in college, I was affected very deeply by the way that I grew up. Also, my father was with [West Virginia University] and he was in the physics department, and then ran the planetarium, and so he was a big influence in connecting sciences. When I looked at colleges, I looked at studying sciences, particularly biology. I ended up pursuing that as a career, but I always knew that I wanted to connect those outside spaces and places that really made a huge impact in my life at an early age to policy, which eventually took me to law school.
Patterson: These are unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people have been seeking outdoor recreation, sometimes for the first time, including in our national parks. How do you balance the act of keeping park employees and the parks themselves safe and maintained while also honoring this desire by the public to get outside?
Everson: Sure, and that’s such an important question. Our No. 1 priority is the safety and health of our employees and our visitors and that’s really our North Star as we’re looking at making these decisions. As we went into the pandemic, we didn’t know a lot about the disease. We didn’t know about the spread. And so, at the very beginning, a lot of, particularly our national parks, had to take a pause in their operations until we figured out what a safe path forward was. And through careful planning, we have been able to do that. We know through the CDC, and we’ve worked so carefully with the CDC guidance, we know that outdoor spaces are much lower risk, and we think that that’s why people are choosing them.
Patterson: The National Park Service is more than 100 years old. As you step into this role, what do you see as priorities for the agency?
Everson: Yes, we are 104 years old or young, depending on the way that we look at it. There are some wonderful opportunities. A couple of weeks ago, we had a landmark opportunity that is really going to shape, I think, our trajectory forward. The president signed the Great American Outdoors Act. [It has] two very important pieces.
One of the pieces was to permanently fund, in perpetuity, the Land and Water Conservation Act. This is incredibly important. There’s a federal side and a state side that looks at being able to acquire places to allow the public, or to welcome the public, to come to parks and other places. There’s also the state side that encourages recreation opportunities within the state. That’s really important as we’re thinking about in West Virginia, the Gauley [River] for example. [It] has utilized these funds to be able to add to the park there, the Gauley River.
The other side of it was they called it the Parks Bill, which basically provided the funding, $1.3 billion annually for the next five years, will go to the National Park Service to be able to invest in the backlog and maintenance. I think this is really important. So currently, the National Park System has about $12 billion worth of backlog and maintenance. These are places in our units that have fallen into disrepair, and we are going to be aggressively working with these new dollars on a plan forward to be able to get on top of these needs.
Patterson: Is there anything else I’m missing, anything that you’d like to add?
Everson: Well, I think one of the things just to really highlight is the importance of having public places, these national parks, open through the pandemic and through as we’re moving forward and being able to really invest in these places through the Great American Outdoors Act.
I think it will continue to be important, particularly as we look at what this brings to the economy in West Virginia. We know that the recreation economy is so important across the state. I think that there were over 1.5 million visitors to national parks in West Virginia just last year with almost $90 million in economic benefits to local communities. This is a huge driver for the economy there in West Virginia, and it’s something that I am particularly proud of being a native of West Virginia.